Even though I knew it was coming, I wasn’t prepared for how moving it would be. As usual, I awoke to National Public Radio on my clock radio yesterday and listened throughout breakfast to the voices of family members and survivors remembering the horror of Sept. 11. My 12-year-old son, who usually is engrossed in the sports pages over his breakfast waffle, cast the paper aside and stared into space. “Are you OK?” I asked. “Yes,” he said, “I’m just listening to this.” I went out for my morning run and couldn’t help comparing the weather: It had been so beautiful and sunny that day; today it was cloudier and much windier. In Riverside Park, I saw a large group of mothers and baby sitters with children in strollers huddled in a circle; as I passed, I realized they were observing a moment of silence. Jogging home southward along the Hudson River, I looked up at the skyline of Lower Manhattan and still found it hard to believe the towers are gone forever. As I showered and dressed for work, I watched television as they started to read the names of the dead at Ground Zero. The wind whipped up a swirl of dust, as though the spirits of the heroes and victims were reminding all those debating the future of the site that this is now their sacred burial ground.
On Wednesday, I usually attend a 9:30 meeting with the top people on our business staff, then have an 11:00 meeting with about 20 of our top editors to discuss future cover projects. But today the business meeting had been canceled, and I decided that no one would be in the mood to debate what Christmas movies we should consider for cover treatment. Instead, I invited everyone on the editorial staff to come to our conference room at 11:30. Newsweek was lucky not to lose any employees in the terror attacks, but I expressed condolences to everyone who had lost friends or loved ones. Then I thanked everyone for the professionalism they had exhibited during that harrowing first week and in the nervous months afterward. They not only showed up for work but pitched in to produce a series of magazines that were honored with the National Magazine Award for General Excellence and became keepsakes for millions of our readers. “I just want to say how proud I am of you,” I said. “As soon as you’ve finished work, go home and hug your loved ones.”
I returned to my desk to watch Newsweek contributors like Steve Brill and Anna Quindlen on NBC’s riveting daylong 9/11 coverage when there was another weird reminder of the mood a year ago. “You do not need to evacuate the building!” came a sudden announcement over the building intercom. Huh? I wondered. A terror scare? No, the gusting winds had blown some scaffolding off the AOL Time Warner building site across the street, causing several injuries, and the police were closing down streets around Columbus Circle. Suddenly the mood of solemnity around the office gave way to a mixture of worry and befuddlement.
Sept.11 not only challenged us as journalists but confirmed my beliefs about the way Newsweek had to evolve. In the past, newsmagazines distinguished themselves from newspapers with livelier writing, color photography, and great “packaging” of feature stories and sidebars. But now newspapers have learned all those tricks, as was impressively apparent after 9/11 in the coverage of dailies like the New York Times and the Washington Post. To remain competitive, we needed to move downstream and incorporate some of the best qualities of great monthly magazines but on a weekly deadline. So, in the weeks after 9/11, we not only scrambled to put out a special issue in 24 hours and do a soup-to-nuts issue with the flag-raising firefighters on the cover that became our best-selling newsstand issue of all time. We followed it with cover stories that few in the past would have expected from a newsmagazine (at least that quickly), including an investigative report called “The Trail of Terror” on intelligence failures leading to the terror attacks and an in-depth analysis of Islamic radicalism called “Why They Hate Us.” We pushed to break news, let our best narrative reporting run longer, gave more room to powerful photojournalism, and balanced the mix with lots of sharp, pithy shorts in the front and back of the book. Newsweek has always taken the lead in shedding the anonymous voice of the newsmagazine, with columnists like Quindlen, George Will, Jonathan Alter, Jane Bryant Quinn, Allan Sloan, and Fareed Zakaria. But we pushed “personalization” even further, putting our writers on the Web and introducing an editor’s note that I write every week.
Did we focus group these changes to death? Nope. For better or worse, we just went for it. Our subscribers account for most of our readership (about 95 percent), and I’ve always believed that they buy the magazine because they like the choices we make. To be candid, we weren’t always sure our experiments would fly. As I was editing Fareed Zakaria’s “Why They Hate Us” cover story, he mused that it could prove the magazine equivalent of David McCullough’s biography of John Adams—a piece that everyone said they had read but no one did. But in fact, it became one of the most widely read and commented upon stories we’ve ever run. Which told me something: You can respect readers’ intelligence and still keep an audience of 20 million. (In other areas, haven’t HBO and Target stores shown that?) And the increase in Newsweek’s total readership numbers since Sept. 11 makes me encouraged that we’re on the right track. Besides, what choice do we have? Time is the older and more self-consciously establishment newsmagazine, so we have to be faster, hipper, and more willing to take chances. Looking back on Sept. 11, I remember pain and sorrow but also the professional satisfaction of besting their armored divisions with our guerrilla army on one of the biggest stories of our time.